Real listening involves active listening and this means demonstrating that we are interested not only in the content of what is being said, but also the context of the discussion and the feelings being expressed by the speaker. This process involves ‘making sense’ of what we have heard. It also involves the potentially dangerous application of selective hearing, whereby our existing assumptions or ‘mental models’ influence our responses to any information we receive. When we apply selective hearing we only notice elements of what has been said or not said. In effect, we listen to what we want to hear, whether it has been said or not. This often results in misunderstandings and conflicts as we distort the real message that might have been given to us. Selective interpretation is also supported by a process that involves us evaluating the information. So even when we do hear accurately what has been said and are able to make sense of it, we frequently subject the information or message to our own values and prejudices. Thus it is very easy to allow our feelings to influence the weighting or interpretation we give to any message or information we receive.
We only need to think of our personal relationships to see the impact and power of this process. Parents and children often clash because of selective interpretation. “I asked them not to come home too late and they thought I was criticizing them for being irresponsible, when all I did was ask them not to come home late!”